On first glance, ball moss looks like it could be a young clump of the southern icon, Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides). The grey-green leaves of ball moss spiral outward from a central knot, rather than cascade down like mounds of curly hair. The name “moss” in this case represents another instance in which common names fail to elucidate the true nature of the plant. True mosses produce spores instead of flowers. Perhaps to declare its separate status, ball moss shoots up long stems that support small, yet beautiful, blue-violet flowers between spring and fall. Tillandsia recurvata is actually a close relative of pineapple and all the other flashy bromeliads so popular in the horticulture trade.
Look up in the spreading branches of oak trees and you will start noticing ball moss almost everywhere. Some people worry it parasitizes trees, since they notice dense clumps on dying branches. However, outside of the canopy, ball moss clasps onto electrical wires and seems to thrive. No obligate parasite can suck life out of lifeless objects, so we know ball moss photosynthesizes like most plants. The thing dead branches and electrical wires have in common is open exposure, resulting in the full sun that ball moss prefers. But, if this cluster of pointy leaves does not drive roots into the soil, then how does it live? Its fuzzy leaves sport specialized scales that catch rainwater and absorb minerals dissolved in the droplets, just like its cousin Spanish moss does.
Author: Andee Naccarato, Department of Education and Conservation, Naples Botanical Garden
Originally published in the News-Press.